ISIS regrouping, exploiting COVID-19 disruptions, according to UN
More than 10,000 ISIS extremists are estimated to remain active in Iraq and Syria two years after the extremist group’s defeat, and their attacks have significantly increased this year, the UN’s counterterrorism chief warned.
Vladimir Voronkov told the UN Security Council Monday that ISIS terrorists move freely “in small cells between the two countries.”
He said ISIS has regrouped and its activity has increased, not only in conflict zones like Iraq and Syria but also in some regional affiliates.
“However, in non-conflict zones, the threat appears to have decreased in the short term,” he said. “Measures to minimize the spread of COVID-19, such as lock-downs and restrictions on movement, seem to have reduced the risk of terrorist attacks in many countries.”
Nonetheless, Voronkov said, “there is a continued trend of attacks by individuals inspired online and acting alone or in small groups, which could be fuelled by ISIL’s opportunistic propaganda efforts during the COVID-19 crisis.” (ISIL is another acronym for ISIS).
He said the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the challenges of eliminating the threat of terrorism, pointing to actions by ISIS and other terrorist groups seeking “to exploit the far-reaching disruption and negative socioeconomic and political impacts of the pandemic.”
But Voronkov said the pandemic’s impact on ISIS recruitment and fundraising activities remains unclear, and there is no clear indication of a change in the extremist group’s strategic direction under its leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi.
Turning to Africa, Voronkov said the Islamic State in West Africa Province “remains a major focus of ISIL global propaganda, and its total membership of approximately 3,500 makes it one of the largest of the remote provinces.’” He said it continues to reinforce links with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, “which remains the most dangerous group in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Niger.”
While ISIS only has “a few hundred fighters in Libya,” he said, they have been exploiting ethnic tensions and represent “a potent threat capable of broader regional impact.” He also pointed to worrying attacks by the Islamic State Central Africa Province in Congo and Mozambique, “including complex attacks and brief takeovers of villages.”
In Europe, Voronkov said, the main threat comes from “Internet-driven, homegrown terrorist radicalization,” citing three ISIS-inspired attacks in France and two in the United Kingdom. He also noted “acute concerns … about radicalization and failed rehabilitation in prisons, and the imminent release of dangerous inmates with a terrorism background or connections.”
In Afghanistan, Voronkov said, ISIS’s affiliate has conducted high profile attacks in various parts of the country, including Kabul, and seeks to use Afghan territory “to spread its influence across the region” and to attract fighters who oppose the recent peace agreement between the US and the Taliban.
Elsewhere in Asia, ISIS claimed its first attack in the Maldives in April, he said, and attacks on security forces in south-east Asia occur regularly though government counter-terrorism operations have kept up pressure on the extremists.
Voronkov said the COVID-19 crisis has further complicated “the already dire and unsustainable situation” of thousands of people with suspected links to ISIS who are stranded in camps in Syria and Iraq, especially women and children.
“Repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration and the protection of the vulnerable have become ever more urgent,” he said.
While some countries have repatriated their nationals, especially children, many have not.
Voronkov reiterated UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s call for all countries to implement international law and bring home all their stranded women, men and children.
“The global threat from ISIL is likely to increase if the international community fails to meet this challenge,” the head of the UN counterterrorism office warned.
US Ambassador Kelly Craft said the United States shares the secretary-general’s concern and has brought back American citizens and prosecuted them where appropriate.
Despite ISIS’s defeat on the battlefield, she said, “we must work together to ensure that the population of detained foreign terrorist fighters as well as their family members displaced in Syria and Iraq do not become the nucleus of an ISIS 2.0.”
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, whose country is Syria’s main ally, said the global terrorist threat from ISIS remains high, and its leadership is planning terrorist attacks in the border area between Syria and Iraq.
“At the same time, the terrorists do not intend to give up plans to revive the `caliphate’ in Iraq,” he said. “ISIL continues to build up its combat potential and is seeking to expand the area and scope of terrorist attacks in the country.”
Nebenzia said ISIS’s organisation and tactics suggest “that it has now fully transformed into a network structure with a high degree of autonomy of branches and `sleeping cells’ in various countries and regions of the world.”
Outside the UN arena, experts warn about the role that could be played by ISIS’s new head, who has a reputation for brutality but otherwise remains largely an enigma.
Amir Mohammed Said Abdul Rahman al-Mawla replaced Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after his death in a raid by US special forces last October.
Mawla was initially presented to the world by ISIS as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi — a man about whom America and Iraq had little intelligence.
US officials later came to believe that al-Qurashi was Mawla’s nom de guerre, recognising him in March as the new head of ISIS.
The State Department immediately placed him on its “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” list, sparking a quest to learn more about a most-wanted man who now has a $10 million bounty on his head.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is Mawla’s brutal nature.
He is probably best known for playing “a major role in the jihadist campaign of liquidation of the Yazidi minority (of Iraq) through massacres, expulsion and sexual slavery,” according to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a jihadism analyst at the Sciences Po university in Paris.
The new ISIS leader was born, likely in 1976, in the town of Tal Afar, some 70 kilometres (40 miles) from Mosul.
He was born into a Turkmen family, making him a rare non-Arab to ascend the ranks of ISIS, which at its height ruled vast parts of Iraq and Syria and drew volunteers from the West.
Mawla graduated from the Islamic Sciences College in Mosul.
A former officer in the army of Saddam Hussein, he joined the ranks of al-Qaeda after the US invasion of Iraq and Hussein’s capture in 2003, according to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) think-tank.
He took on the role of religious commissary and a general Sharia jurist for al-Qaeda, the one who doles out the most barbaric sentences or at least gives them religious cover.
In 2004, Mawla was detained by US forces at the Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq, where he met Baghdadi. he was later freed and rejoined Baghdadi.
A profile drawn up by the CEP said that Mawla “quickly established himself among the insurgency’s senior ranks, and was nicknamed the ‘Professor’ and the ‘Destroyer.'”
Analysts believe Mawla will now seek to prove he is his own man by attempting to reboot an organisation weakened by years of US-led assaults and the loss of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria last year.
And he may choose to act now that the US is withdrawing troops from Syria.
In a portent of things to come, ISIS fighters have carried out an attack every three days on average in Syria in recent months, according to the Washington-based Centre for Global Policy (CGP).
Hisham Al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based specialist on the extremist movement who was assassinated in Baghdad this month, recently estimated the group’s monthly revenues in Iraq from investments and taxes it collects at some $7 million.
“Despite its serious losses in territory and manpower, it remains financially solvent, creative, lethal, and once again confident enough to threaten those who violate its principles,” CGP analyst Abdullah Al-Ghadhawi wrote.
Experts also do not rule out devastating attacks on the West.